City, county may keep water on at mobile park

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 3, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — A proposal between the city and county to share the rent collected at a mobile home park could keep the water on for 165 units.
Sharing rent attachments with the county is unusual but could work, said Jim Behmer, director for Salisbury-Rowan Utilities.
“That’s new territory for us,” Behmer said. “That might enable us to keep the water on while we work on arrangements for the past due amount.”
The city has warned residents three times it may turn off the water in two mobile home neighborhoods — Matika Villa on Airport Road and Circle Drive on U.S. 29 — if landlord Tim Smith doesn’t pay his bill.
Smith told the Post he owes the city about $50,000. The city has worked for a year to collect the debt, Behmer said.
Authorities said they will not pursue a criminal investigation or charges against Smith. But some tenants said they plan to hire an attorney to sue Smith for collecting their rent, which was supposed to include water, and then not paying his bill.
“What’s he doing with the money?” tenant Jerry Allen asked.
Smith is also severely delinquent on city and county property taxes, and Rowan County has begun attaching, or seizing, the rent at 48 units in Circle Drive. Starting this month, those residents pay their rent to the county instead of Smith.
Rowan County Tax Administrator Robert Rowland said Thursday the county will give Salisbury $35 of every $210 rent payment collected from Circle Drive.
That would generate $1,680 a month toward the water bill.
“We feel like it’s the right thing to do,” Rowland said.
Rowan County tax officials and attorney Jay Dees met with Behmer on Thursday afternoon. Smith, who was at the meeting, did not pay anything on his water bill Thursday but used a certified check to pay $5,900 of his unpaid property taxes, which now total $183,100.
Behmer said the rent-sharing agreement has not been formalized and likely will need approval from City Attorney Rivers Lawther. City and county officials will meet again next week, he said.
Turning off the water is a last resort, he said.
“We are working on all options to come up with some kind of arrangements,” Behmer said.
The city has notified the American Red Cross the United Way about the possibility of residents in 165 mobile homes being without water on June 30, he said.
“We want to have a plan ready for the residents,” he said.
City Council may need to approve some of the options being pursued, Behmer said.
Tenants’ trust
Allen and other residents at Circle Drive said they may pool their resources and hire a lawyer to sue Smith for breaking his promises. The rent at Circle Drive and Matika Villa, which is $250, is supposed to include water, sewer and garbage.
Several tenants said when they asked Smith about the water bill after receiving the first warning from the city in April, he assured them he had paid it.
“I don’t trust him,” said L.R. Childress, who is disabled and has lived in Circle Drive with his wife since 2004.
Childress said he doesn’t believe Smith’s explanation that a former employee embezzled $150,000 from him last year, causing severe financial problems for his many businesses. No one was charged.
Smith’s failure to pay his debts has caused hardship and stress for tenants who are already in dire straights, Childress said.
“Most people here are disabled or retired,” he said. “We don’t have no place to go.”
Tenants own the mobile homes and rent the land, but many of the trailers are too old to be moved, he said.
Although some tenants said they believe Smith committed fraud, law enforcement officials do not plan to charge him.
Before the Rowan County District Attorney’s Office could take action, Salisbury Police would need to conduct a criminal investigation if the agency believes a crime has been committed, District Attorney Brandy Cook said.
“This matter is civil and not criminal,” Salisbury Police Chief Rory Collins said in an email. “What the tenants paid to Smith and what those funds were designated for are all part of their rental/lease agreement.”
Disputes would be handled in the civil courts, Collins said.
“For this matter to be criminal, it would be necessary to prove criminal ‘intent,’” he said. “I do not believe that is the case here, nor do I feel criminal intent could be proven.”
No meters
Although some have tried, Smith’s tenants can’t pay for their own water since there is no way to measure it.
Each mobile home park has a master meter, and Smith is responsible for the total each month. The city has suggested installing submeters, but so far Smith has declined, Behmer said.
Installing submeters at each unit would require Smith to hire an engineer and make a capital investment, Behmer said. He said he didn’t know how much the project might cost.
Another mobile home park on Airport Road across from Matika Villa installed submeters. Tenants now pay their own water bills, which is better for everyone, Behmer said.
The city can’t enter Matika Villa or Circle Drive and install individual meters, Behmer said. It’s not a simple project, and the city does not have permission from Smith to work on his property, he said.
“Any request would have to come through the landlord,” Behmer said.
Among most delinquent
Smith is one of the most delinquent taxpayers in Rowan County and has the largest outstanding water bill in Behmer’s 10 years with the city.
After his $5,900 payment Thursday, Smith promised to pay an additional $7,000 toward his property taxes today, Rowland said.
If he does, he will have paid off the 2007 property taxes on his business accounts, Rowland said.
“Then he starts on 2008,” Rowland said.
If progress continues, the county will not have to foreclose on the mobile home parks, Rowland said.
“I would hate to have to do that,” Rowland said. “I don’t know what hardships Smith has had, but I really feel that he tries.”
Current on home
Rowland said Smith is current only on the taxes for his personal property.
According to records, Smith has paid his taxes every year on a 6,294-square-foot house in Spencer with a tax value of $646,120.
Smith and his wife bought the house in 2006 for $750,000.
Smith, who owns Rubber One Recycling on Peach Orchard Road, told the Post Wednesday he thinks of his tenants like family and wants to pay his debts as soon as possible.
“I’m working as hard as I can to get as much funds as I can,” he said.
A new rubber product he’s manufacturing and selling could generate the cash he needs, Smith said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.